The South African Under-20 squad kicks-off their tourney in Korea Republic on Sunday May 21st against Japan, before taking on Italy and Uruguay on the 24th and 27th of May respectively in Group D. We interview coach Senong to get a feel about his thoughts and the team’s preparations ahead of the biggest showpiece in U/20 football.
You have come on in leaps and bounds as a coach since the disappointment of not qualifying for the 2015 FIFA U/20 World Cup; what would you say has improved in your progress as a coach?
Our 2015 AFCON under 20 campaign had many challenges: 5 key players were injured, Fagrie Lakay, Tshepo Liphoko, Jethren Barr and Denwin Farmer. Clubs refused to release some players such as Lebo Mothiba (Lille), Nthlakanipho Ntuli (FC Twente), Rivaldo Coetsee and Jody February. Without quality and experienced players, it will always be difficult to compete against the best in the continent. As a coach I have doubted my abilities and talent. The secret is just to remain a lifelong student of the game.
How has the Multichoice Diski Challenge helped improved youth development in the country?
The MDC has obviously played a positive role in player development in South Africa. Young players were exposed to good competitive matches against other PSL reserve setups. The coaching and training is at an advanced phase. The playing minutes (Game time) was what was needed all along by these young stars. The champions get an opportunity to travel to Europe and play against other quality clubs in countries such as Netherlands.
What do you think has held our youth development back in recent years?
We have huge challenges with regard to player development in South Africa. You still find academies and clubs that are looking to win junior tournaments and leagues at Under 9, under 11, under 13 and under 15 level. Their training priorities are focused on tactics and fitness. In my opinion, I think the mentioned age groups should focus on ball mastering technical training and enjoying the game (small sided games) in the development phase.
Youth coaches are concerned on winning because they care more about their reputation as coaches. At a young age, I believe winning is not important; the most important thing is to develop creative and highly skilled players with good confidence. We also need to increase the number of qualified youth coaches at development level. Such as FIFA and CAF youth coaching licence and CAF B and B licence.
What changes have you seen take place in the development of the players involved in the squad since the U/20 AFCON which may help them in the World Cup?
We have obviously changed the perception that West African teams are superior to us. We have now identified tactical means to overcome such teams. They obviously possess attributes such as speed, power and they are always highly motivated. But we have learnt that with players that possess good technique and game intelligence, it will be possible to beat the likes of Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.
How did the players take the missed opportunity to win the AFCON tournament?
Our boys were obviously disappointed not to have won the tournament but they are not discouraged, because we achieved our main objective which was to qualify for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World cup in Korea. The boys have learnt a lot as a technical team. Preparing for the AFCON tournament was a challenge, for instance clubs didn’t release players and some clubs released players very late in our preparation phase.
Seven of the players you have selected were part of the U/17 set-up that participated in the U/17 World Cup; was this a deliberate move(?) and what is the significance of having players progress through different age categories in the national set up?
There is a smooth synergy amongst all the national teams at the moment. We currently have 14 graduates from the previous under 17 team that qualified for the 2015 Under 17 World Cup. Junior national team coaches are fully informed about continuity and uniformity. As the head Coach of Amajita. The Under 17 team (Amajimbos) is my 1st source in the talent identification pipeline program. Of course I still have to monitor promising in the other leagues and tournaments. Such as, the SAFA leagues, SAB league, ABC Motsepe, SAB under 21 championships, Kay Motsepe under 19 tournament, Burger King under 19 SAFA interprovincial tournaments, University football, NFD and PSL league.
What effect does the ‘club vs country’ saga have on the development of players and the progress of the national team?
The Club vs Country has affected the Amajita’s progress negatively. We have always struggled to get the best possible talent as a technical team. Players always report very late in preparation camps and competitions. Many talented youngsters are missing the opportunity of representing their nation due to the difference we have as clubs, coaches and administrators. Going forward, my wish is see a better synergy and communication within all the important stakeholders. Successful football nations always work together to achieve their objectives. As seen with Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Zambia and Senegal and Portugal. We travelled with 18 players to Korea. It’s not ideal for any technical team. We would have liked to have all our 21 players. Training fields was a challenge in the first 4 days.
With the tournament commencing on the coming weekend, have the boys acclimatised to the conditions in Korea Republic?
We had to drive more than an hour to go to training. The time difference is still difficult for our boys to adapt to. Our boys have not fully acclimatised to the conditions and setup. But that’s part of development. We are building the stars of tomorrow, the future of Bafana Bafana. Sometimes it helps to develop away from our areas of comfort. Social and emotional development is key if we want to produce, promote and export successful footballers.
Having won 2-1 in the practice match against Costa Rica on Monday, what positive points have you picked up and what are some of the things we may still need to work on?
The boys played well against Cost Rica. The win was good to boost their confidence. Costa Rica were very aggressive. We utilised possession very well, we created good chances. Obviously it’s all still work in progress and we still need to improve in other aspects of our game.
Where do you rank the quality of our squad in relation to our competitors at the U/20 FIFA World Cup?
We are blessed with natural talent in abundance, the critical issue is, continue nurturing this talent properly. As a country, we need to improve our training and coaching standards in order to reduce the football technical gaps between us and the best in the world.
How do you fancy our chances in group D which includes the likes of Japan, Uruguay and Italy, and the tournament more broadly?
We are the dark horses in Group D. That puts us in the right zone to work harder. Japan are champions of Asia, Uruguay are Champions of South America. Italy are underdogs like us, but they are not push overs because they also earned their qualification at the World Cup. We have analysed all our opponents. We are going to approach one game at the time.